From skepticism to faith regarding miracles

I am a Christian. I believe in God, and I believe that Jesus really was born, died, and rose again. But I am also a physician, trained in the sciences, which made faith in God to perform a miracle difficult to have. I do not think that this skepticism is unique to physicians, but I would argue that our medical education in the West trains us to be skeptical, and to wear it proudly as a badge of honor.

When I found out that I had cancer again, in April 2015, the longing of my heart was for God to just take it away. I was still recovering from nine hard months of chemotherapy as well as major surgery. My hair had finally grown to a length where it actually looked cute. But more importantly, there was no guarantee that more treatment was going to work; as a matter of fact, the odds were more in favor of further treatment not working. So when I prayed, and when I asked other people to pray, what I asked for and wanted prayer for was for God to heal me and to take the cancer away.

So when one of my pastors and another church leader came over to pray for me, I told them that I did not want to do more chemo, and I just wanted God to take the cancer away. Without hesitation my pastor replied, “Well, then that is what we are going to pray for. We are going to pray that God would fry this lymph node.” My pastor anointed me with oil (see James 5:14-15) and they prayed for my healing. When they were done praying, with a look of peace on her face the other leader said to me, “That was all I could pray.” She had prayed a brief prayer aloud. She explained that she had gotten a strong sense that there was nothing more that needed to be said, because God had healed me. They both encouraged me to pray prayers of thanksgiving for my healing.

I wonder if my face revealed the war between belief and unbelief that was going on inside me. My head was giving an almost imperceptible nod, but my mind was thinking something like, “But… ah… how do you know?…” Then, I wonder, when my pastor told me I could also pray, “I believe; help me in my unbelief,” did they notice any outward signs of my inward sigh of relief?

I had been praying for God to heal me. I believed that God could heal, and that he did heal. One moment I would pray with confidence to the God of Hezekiah, of Gideon, of Elijah, of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus; the next moment I would wonder if it was all just wishful thinking. I wanted to believe and not doubt, but at the same time I wondered if I was just in denial. So I prayed, “God, I believe. Help me in my unbelief.” And he did.

We tend to think that if we doubt when we want to believe, the solution is to “believe harder.” Just have faith. But the solution to doubt is not to plug our ears and pretend like those doubting voices are not there. That may work for a little while, but when crises come into our lives, doubts that we have not sufficiently dealt with will quickly arise to the surface once again. It is best to be honest with God and ourselves and seek to resolve our doubts. (I remember as a college student reading the Gospels and having a hard time believing that they were true. I looked up towards the ceiling and prayed, “God, I don’t believe all of this. But I want to believe it if it is true. Please help me.”) When I asked God to help me in my unbelief, I was asking him to help me believe what is true. The other side of that coin is to recognize what of my beliefs are not true, and then to discard them.

God answered my prayer through a New Testament scholar named Craig Keener. I am not even sure how I came across it, but I found an article online in which he was interviewed about miracles. His defense of miracles was different from anything else I had come across. For someone who is skeptical about miracles, providing examples of modern day miracles is simply not enough. In the past, if I read a story about someone who claimed to have been miraculously healed, as a physician I could immediately come up with some other explanation in my mind. Keener approached the topic instead by first evaluating the philosophical underpinnings of my brand of skepticism. And it wasn’t pretty.

In a nutshell, Keener traces the modern prejudice against miracles back to David Hume, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher. Though Hume’s arguments have largely been debunked by modern philosophers, his antisupernatural bias continues to shape what we in the West believe, including in the Western church. I found a video online of a lecture Keener had given in which he expounded on this. He also gave examples of modern-day miracle claims and why it is reasonable to believe that some miracle claims are true. I found an excerpt of his book, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, and devoured it; when I was done with the excerpt I sent off for the book. In the weeks leading up to my CT scan which showed that I was healed, when I was not reading the Gospels I was reading Keener’s book.

Now you might think it strange that during some of the most trying weeks of my life, I spent my hours reading a two-volume, thousand-page study on miracles that is really geared toward academics and not sick people. But if I was going to believe that God was going to answer prayers for miraculous healing, then I needed to know that that faith was a reasonable faith. To ignore these doubts and not address them would have been intellectually dishonest. I found Keener’s book to be exactly what I needed in order to believe. I realized that some of my basic assumptions about reality were heavily influenced by Enlightenment philosophy, and when it came to miracles and healing I did not have a Biblical worldview at all. I read chapter upon chapter of miracle claims from throughout history and throughout the world that Keener catalogued, and became convinced that God is still doing miracles today, and it is not naive to believe so. And this built up my faith to believe that God indeed would heal me.

My intellectual doubts were being satisfied, but my heart was not yet completely at peace. I longed for God to give me a sign that he was going to heal this cancer and take it all away. He answered that longing of my heart in a way that I had not expected – by knocking me to the ground. I will write about that experience in my next post.


For further reading:

Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, Craig Keener

God in the Dark: The Assurance of Faith Beyond a Shadow of Doubt, Os Guinness. An excellent book on what doubt really is and how we can resolve our doubts.

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